Shemini - Jewish Soul Train-ing

by Rebbetzin Malkah

As a child, I fondly remember flipping through the channels looking for some of my favorite shows.  Occasionally, the music for one particular show would stream onto the television as the ever popular cartoon train moved across the screen - yes, I mean Soul Train. I would pause for a moment and watch the train go by and then continue my search.   I can still hear the music in my head to this day.  What was unique about this show is that for many, it was a window into African-American culture that for some might otherwise never have been experienced.  The latest fashion and dance trends were discussed, and new or popular artists donned the set to sing the latest hits.  During the 70's and 80's, it was a cultural and spiritual tutor for many.

As we step into the parasha this week, we find ourselves in the Mishkan, awaiting the service of the priests to unfold before our eyes.  This seems like the equivalent of a continuation of a Jewish Soul Train - there have been episodes in the garb of the priests, the construction of the Mishkan, and now the training of the priests.  The Children of Yisrael have been tuned in for weeks and received many commandments - they have been educated in the social and spiritual culture that Hashem expects.  The final moments have arrived - at last, the chance to restore intimacy with Hashem as it was at Sinai, before the episode of the golden calf.  But within those moments of exultation and anticipation, the sons of Aharon find themselves overstepping their boundaries in a vain attempt to speed up that intimacy.  What has been an episode of elation and celebration suddenly turns for the worst:

The sons of Aharon, Nadav and Avihu, each took his fire pan, they put fire in them and placed incense upon it; and they brought before Hashem and alien fire that He had not commanded them.  A fire came forth from before Hashem and consumed them, and they died before Hashem. (Vayikra 10: 1- 2)

In the midst of this passage, we find ourselves struggling to understand how tragedy can come upon the sons of the Kohen Gadol at the heart of a memorable and holy ceremony for B'nei Yisrael.  But while this death sends shock waves of sadness not only to Aharon but to us as readers, we need to take home from this parasha the lessons of how innovative service to Hashem, intoxicants, and the seemingly unrelated commandments of kashrut play a distinctive role in training us to be acceptable and honorable before Hashem.

They Long To Be....Close To You

So what exactly is a mitzvah?  This word is constantly before us the Jewish world, with varying interpretations.  The word mitzvah literally means "commandment".  Closely related to the word mitzvah is the word tzavta, meaning "a connection" or "a binding."  Our very performance of a mitzvah helps to forge a connection between us and Hashem.  It is not enough just to hear a mitzvah - we are to do it.  However, with a mitzvah, there are usually guidelines that surround the commandment so that it is performed correctly.  Today, we have a great deal of halacha which informs us in how to perform a mitzvah with integrity and the various pitfalls to avoid.

But in the light of Nadav and Avihu, what was the mitzvah that they were to perform and where did they go wrong? The sages give many reasons why they may have brought strange fire - aish zarah - and performed their service prematurely.  According to the Zohar and Likutey Torah, Nadav and Avihu were "two halves of a body."  Keep in mind, these kohanim were not yet married.  Judaism speaks of those who are not yet married as a half looking to be enjoined to another half to be made whole.  Did this lack of wholeness, or shlema, on the part of Nadav and Avihu lead them to seek personal wholeness and intimacy by coming before Hashem? As it says: "And Nadav and Avihu, the sons of Aharon, each took his censer. . ." (Leviticus 10:1).  Each of them lacked a wholeness, or shlema, or they would not have sought to enter the Holy of Holies unsolicited - for it was in this place that there was true closeness between the kohen gadol and Hashem.

Many times when people lack true wholeness, there is a natural tendency to cross boundaries in order to fulfill needs and to achieve closeness.  When these boundaries are violated, the recipient may find a temporary need fulfilled.  However, the party violated loses a sense of dignity and honor due to the unwelcome intrusion.  This is not only a hazardous way to conduct human relationships, but is completely intolerable by Hashem. The seven days of preparation for service were to prepare Nadav and Avihu for the meticulous manner in which Hashem was to be honored and approached.  On the eighth day, however, they let their strong desire to commune with G-d overwhelm them; thus, they spilled over into holy space in a most unfitting manner and received a divine response - their souls were consumed.

Bar Kappara said in the name of Rabbi Jeremiah ben Elazar: Aharon's sons died on account of four things: for drawing near, for offering, for the strange fire, and for not having taken counsel from each other. "For drawing near"--because they entered into the innermost precincts of the Sanctuary. "For offering"--because they offered a sacrifice which they had not been commanded to offer. "For the strange fire"--they brought in fire from the kitchen. "And for not having taken counsel from each other"--as it says, "Each of them his censer," implying that they acted each on his own initiative, not taking counsel from one another. (Leviticus Rabba 20:8)

Self-Centered Mitzvot ?

One might be tempted to ask if Hashem saw the intent of the hearts of Nadav and Avihu. Isn't serving Hashem with joy important?  While it would seem Hashem saw the joy within them, there was also a direct order in the priesthood that needed adherence so as to inspire awe and reverence in the Levites and klal Yisrael.  By shunning the rules laid down for service and anticipating the leadership of Moshe, the very order of the konanim was at stake.  The Talmud records that Nadav and Avihu were potentially tzadikim - likened unto Moshe and Aharon. However, because they were not filled with a shlema like Moshe and Aharon, they did not check whether or not their service would be welcomed and proper. The very act of bringing their own censer shows that they desired to act as independent agents and not as a collective unto Hashem .  They were unable to let Hashem ‘match' their offerings suitably and took matters into their own hands.  This kind of attitude would be contagious and deadly for a people so spiritually immature that it had to be quashed before it spread.  They became an instant atonement for their transgression. In short, they broke the rules and paid a heavy price.

So how do we perform mitzvot?  Do we ‘insert ourselves here' and go about neglecting the halacha and posing as a poor example for others?  How many times do we lose out on a chance to give glory to Hashem because we fail to understand the necessity for Hashem's guidelines to be fully intertwined in the mitzvah?  When we seek to draw close to Hashem, do we draw from an external source rather than Torah, halacha and the divine spark He has placed within us?  If so, we can rest assured that our efforts will usually turn into mishaps or half-baked flops.  Nadav and Avihu used their own fire-pans with coals from their own hearths.  Their motivations were their own - brought from within themselves - but not checked by their previous days of holy service and preparation.  So too can we fall into the same trap if we neglect the proper way to serve.

Animal or Spiritual?

After the death of Aharon's sons, Hashem speaks to Aharon and commands him that he and his sons are not to enter the Mishkan for service filled with wine.  This decree would ensure that the kohanim would be lucid and their hearts open with pure joy and dedication in their worship.  The very nature of alcohol, while providing joy, can also lead to a sense of uninhibited behavior and selfishness- which some sages believe is the reason Nadav and Avihu thought to bring fire in the first place. This physical restriction was intended to elevate the souls of the kohanim and eliminate any possible chance that the worship would become selfishly motivated.   Not far after this admonition in the parasha, we are introduced to the laws of kashrut. From the onset, this seems a leap from the discourse of previous events.  However, the correlation is strong.  These commandments affecting our everyday habits of food consumption actually help us to be fit for service and to allow us to have wholeness in spirit and body.  Chassidus teaches us that we take on the characteristics of an animal's qualities when we consume it- thus, if we partake of an unkosher animal, we fill our neshamot with those negative traits.  Likewise, when we eat kosher animals, slaughtered properly and not taken from the side of the road, we receive into our neshamot the positive traits of the animal.

"It was said among the students of the Talmudic Sage Rabbi Yishmael, 'Sin dulls the heart,' as it says, 'Do not make yourself impure through them (prohibited species) lest you shall become contaminated through them.' Do not read the Hebrew as 'venitmeisem' (you shall become contaminated). The same letters can also be read as 'venitamtem' (you shall become dull hearted)." (Talmud - Yoma 39a)

From this, we see our service to Hashem includes what we make ourselves - we are what we eat and drink.  Through food-related mitzvot, we go through a taming that makes us fit to serve the Holy One.  We don't esteem the right to walk before the Holy One if our physical composition is composed of an animal's traits - wild and unchecked.  He gave us a neshama to nurture, and the right foods go a long way to achieve those ends.  We don't seek to bring before Him an aish zarah - a strange fire or an alien soul - one which might seem more like that of an animal rather than a divinely infused being.

Have A Heart

But is it enough just to do what the mitzvot proscribe?  Hearkening back to our earlier question, is the performance of mitzvot all about the physical action or does Hashem look at the heart?  While the examples above allude to outward physical acts having bearing on how the mitzvah is performed and accepted, our hearts have to be in it as well.  And that is the catch - there has to be both.  Nadav and Avihu's downfall was that their heart was in it, but not their head as well.  A truly righteous person has both intertwined, so that the head works with the heart in perfect harmony.  The yearning to serve Hashem isn't enough - there is a process.

" R. Abba said: The word fear' here esoterically alludes to the Holy One, blessed be He, as in the verse, The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge' (Prov. I, 7).' R. Eleazar said: If a man desires to serve his Master, from what place should he commence and in what place should he first aim at unifying the name of his Master? In fear', with which the ascent heavenwards commences.'"(Soncino Zohar, Vayikra, Section 3, Page 56a and b)

If we take home that we need to have awe and reverence, guidelines and heart, then we are on the road to success and acceptable performance of mitzvot.  Having the appropriate ‘fear' not only motivates us to seek out the right way, but it also heightens our awareness of the sanctity of the relationship and provokes us to be informed.  This helps us to be more "whole" as we approach divine service, empowers the mitzvah to ripple through the lives of those around us, and bring honor to Hashem.  Anything less is a cultural and spiritual faux-pas.  Our Messiah, Yeshua, also stressed the importance of mitzvot performance and doing it appropriately:

"You are light for the world.....In the same way, let your light shine before people so that they may see the good things you do and praise your Father in heaven. Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven.  Don't think that I have come to abolish the Torah or the Prophets.  I have come not to abolish but to complete.  Yes indeed!  I tell you that until heaven and earth pass away, not so much as a yud or a strike will pass from the Torah - not until everything that must happen has happened.  So whoever disobeys the least of these mitzvoth and teaches others to do so will be called the least in the Kingdom of Heaven.  But whoever obeys them and so teaches will be called great in the Kingdom of Heaven." (Mattityahu 5:14, 16-19)

We have the power to infuse our surroundings with holiness and bring glory to Hashem.  However, we have to be educated in how and diligent in our performance.  We have to enjoin our heads and our hearts in order to be that light of which Messiah Yeshua speaks.

As we continue down the path of performing mitzvot during this season of the omer, tune into the Torah.  As you travel through each day of the counting, seek to hone your character so that you are operating in ways that are spiritually sensitive, Torah informed and Messiah inspired.  Hop on the Jewish Soul Train and train your mind and your soul to do what's halachically hip...

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